There is huge danger in the west’s rush to oversimplify the complex civil wars in the Middle East. I share the western revulsion at the way an American journalist was murdered by a representative of ISIL. Like others I am appalled to see reports of people killed or removed from their homes by ISIL fighters. We should not let these particularly evil acts blind us to the many murders and atrocities committed by a range of other groups and armies in this war torn part of the world as well, nor to the difficulty of achieving better government through another set of military battles.
There is no nice way to kill someone. To the dying there is no nice killer. People are just as dead in the Middle East if they have faced a bomb from Assad’s airforce, or a shell from the Iraqi democratic government’s army , or a bullet from one of the Libyan militia groups, or fire from freedom fighters in various provinces as those are who have suffered from the atrocities visited by IS forces.
We should not suppose that western military involvement will allow the surgical removal of ISIL fighters with no damage to anyone else. Sunni populations angered by the conduct of the Baghdad government have sometimes given their support to ISIL forces as they embed in civilian areas. More moderate opposition groups have co-operated with ISIL in Syria to try to get rid of Assad. We also need to ask what will replace ISIL when the forces against it are successful , and how would we assist in the construction of stable government in place of ISIL imposed rule?
Today many in the media and some armchair generals wish us to believe there is a single group of particularly evil insurgents called ISIL. If we just help other forces to defeat them all will be better and the Middle East can look forward to a more peaceful future. Will it? Doesn’t it require huge political efforts from the governments of Iraq and Syria to win over their people and establish a new state politics which all the people can buy into? Or does it require new states with new borders reflecting the allegiances of the populations?
Yesterday came news that a different militia has seized control of Tripoli airport. This grouping we read may well contain Islamists within it. They do not claim to be ISIL forces. Following western military intervention in Libya the dictator was killed. Instead of the country making good progress to a proper democracy, the Parliament cowers in part of the country and has little or no control over Tripoli, Benghazi and other important centres of population in its own lands. Huge damage is being done to the country’s infrastructure as warring bands fight over once important facilities which can no longer function properly. People are dying or suffering from the break down of law and order and the lack of civil power to control the streets and disarm the armed bands. The more the economy suffers, the more young men despair of having a decent job and a future by staying law abiding and peace loving. This should remind us how important the politics is after military intervention. Many Libyans do not see it as progress to be living in such a dysfunctional state.
In Syria some now think we should back Assad as he fights against his own people, carrying on with his bombing and shelling civilians. Others have wanted to co-operate with a Syrian opposition to get rid of him which includes a range of Islamic extremist organisations as well as some more moderate opposition forces. Our indecision should give us pause for reflection. Maybe the west cannot settle the future of Syria? Maybe only Syrian politicians and the people living there can settle their future.
The list of banned terrorist organisations drawn up by the UK is long, and includes many different Islamic extremist movements in the Middle East. Are we now saying only one of these, ISIL, matters? Ansar al Sunna, Asbat al Ansar and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, for example, are on the UK banned list. The Syrian opposition includes Al Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, the Syrian Islam Liberation Front and the Islamic Front, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood which has recently been thrown out of elected office in Egypt for its conduct. What do we think of these organisations today?
The modern Middle East is a far more complex place than the present analysis of ISIL against the rest would suggest. Law and order and the operation of state civil power has broken down in many parts of Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. The states respond by firing on their own citizens, which intensifies the civil wars and often makes things worse. These countries are subject to marauding bands, making a way of life out of terrorising people, robbing, looting and raising money for their own purposes. The group called IS currently seem to be the most threatening at this destructive and violent way of life, but they are by no means the only ones. People draw huge areas on maps claiming them as IS territory, but in practice IS only controls those places where it has enough loyal and co-ordinated fighters. Much of it is probably local gang warfare, with fluctuating control by people with weapons.
I do not see how further western military engagement can settle these war torn countries. It requires high political skills to design a system of states for the Middle East that their peoples can accept, and to draw the loyalty of all the different groups into a fair system for governing them. If it is to be done on current borders, then it requires the governments of Iraq, Libya and Syria to behave in very different ways to the way they are doing, and to show they do have the political ability to disarm the warring factions, disband the gangs and give them all something more worthwhile to live for. It is easy to see how western power can help remove nasty men from office, but more difficult to see how western power can help secure good men – let alone women – to rule who can recreate sensible civil government. It also requires the main Shia and Sunni powers who are involved in these various civil wars to come to an understanding between themselves about their own spheres of influence.